Called home: Mourners, friends share memories where Ali's legend began

Called home: Mourners, friends share memories where Ali's legend began
(Source: WAVE 3 News)
(Source: WAVE 3 News)
(Source: WAVE 3 News)
(Source: WAVE 3 News)
(Source: WAVE 3 News)
(Source: WAVE 3 News)
(Source: WAVE 3 News)
(Source: WAVE 3 News)

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - The home for Muhammad Ali's formative years was forgotten and fell into disrepair for more than half a century.

But four days after reopening, following months of restoration, the prewar cottage at 3302 Grand Avenue has become a shrine for well-wishers and mourners following the death of the three-time world heavyweight champion, whose deeds outside the ring once made him, arguably, the most recognizable name and face on earth.

"I've been to 70 countries," Rodney Baker told WAVE 3 News Saturday outside of the Muhammad Ali Childhood Home Museum. "Anybody from Louisville who's been out of town, that's the first person you relate to - Ali."

Baker had been back in the States only hours before learning of Ali's death. He came by Ali's home just as the sun was rising Saturday morning. Kenneth Price already was there, bearing golden roses.

"These represent the Golden Gloves and the gold (medal from the 1960 Olympics) that he brought home to Louisville," Price said. "He represents us all."

Price's father occasionally would drive the young Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. to Central High School, he said.

Patrice Whiteside's late father, Charles,  became Clay's sparring partner.

"He was there when the bike was stolen," Whiteside said. "And it was kind of a joke to him as funny."

As the story goes, the bike theft prompted the preteen Clay to take up the sweet science to "find and whup whoever did it."  He and Whiteside appeared on 'Tomorrow's Champions,' which aired on WAVE-3 from 1954-66. Its producer, the late Joe Elsby Martin Sr, was a Louisville police officer who trained them.

"I took my son up there to watch him, (after Ali became champion) just to watch how he fought back his anger," Bobbie Powell-Goldei said. "Not
with weapons. Just his fists"

But the wits came first. If boxing truly is full-contact chess, as much mind and body, Clay and his father were apt namesakes of Kentucky's fieriest Clay.

The "Lion of Whitehall," cousin to the 'Great Compromiser' Henry Clay and brother to wealthy planter Brutus Clay, was a staunch abolitionist who once fought off six brothers who came at him with knives. He later served as Abraham Lincoln's ambassador to Russia,  securing it a Union ally during the Civil War.

"Throughout his life, Ali had a tremendous love for children," said Evan Bochetto, curator and creative director for the Ali Home Museum. "He always had an ambition to help children achieve their goals."

The "Louisville Lip" was poetic, profound and playful, yielding a trove of photographs with children of governors and of paupers.

"He did this trick where he raised up off the ground," recalled Kevin Glenn, who'd stood in line to meet the Champ following the "Rumble in the Jungle" bout that KO'd George Foreman and regained the title.

"I thought he was magic," Glenn said.

"And not just for his boxing," Baker said. "But what he stood for, the people he fought for, the morals he believed in."

A stand with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as a face and voice for civil rights. His conversion to Islam, prompting the change of name, and a refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War. The latter stance cost him his championships and very nearly his freedom.

Segregation more than strained Ali's relationship with his hometown. But "he always remembered his neighbors," said Rev. Charles Elliott, long-time pastor of King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church.

"Muhammad Ali gave us a check," Elliott said, referring to a church project called Feed the Hungry. "He said, 'Look, have it every day. Feed the people. Feed everybody.' He thought that way. He felt that way."

"The young people today should also see - you can do it," Powell-Goldei said. "Not with your weapons, but with your work."

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